Notes on “Because You’re Engaged”

unspokenwordsA facebook-based critique group that I am a part of is on the cusp of launching an anthology of short stories. I wrote one of them, titled “Because You’re Engaged.” It’s about a young career woman who is trying to navigate her flagging emotions for her difficult fiance while also starting to notice her co-worker. I am really excited this story is getting published, because it’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for about thirteen years.

I got engaged in April 2003 to a guy who really wasn’t a good fit for me. My “Colin” character is based on him. I won’t shame him on my public blog with a litany of his sins, but I will say that the time we spent as an engaged couple was a very dark period in my life. I had wretched anxieties and my relationship with my mother – who disapproved of him for valid reasons – was shot. I had nightmares and my roommates told me I was groaning with despair in my sleep.

By November, I was having regular panic attacks, which corresponded with the times when I knew I’d see him. I realized that I felt more at ease around my casual male friends than I did around the man I was supposed to marry.

My character John is based on one of these friends. We would regularly complete our Arabic homework together, and he used to tease me about being makhtouba, or engaged. As my relationship with my fiance worsened, I began to notice more nice things about my friend. We never got together or anything, but I did break up with my fiance.

In the weeks following the breakup, everyone I knew let out a collective sigh of relief. “I’m so glad!” they said. “I didn’t want to say anything, but you guys weren’t a very good match.”

My original drafts showed Colin doing all the obnoxious things I hated about my fiance, and used some of the out-of-this-world hateful dialog based on things he actually said to me. The problem with that is it turned my love story about John and Jess finding each other into a hate story about how incredibly rotten Colin was. That doesn’t make for a very good story. The Colin in the published story is not super-likable, but he’s a lot less horrible compared to that original draft.

 

I put a lot of myself in this. I spent the last two years of high school in Mina Saud, Kuwait. The back door to our house was about a hundred yards away from the beach and I spent as much time as I could there. The open sky and the comfortable solitude and the dull roar of the breaking surf became my best friends. I used that as the setting for the kiss because that was always my dream, to share the beauty of that ocean with someone. I probably won’t ever make it back there with the man I eventually married, so I had to be content with imagining it.

The part where Jess ducks into the bathroom because she doesn’t want to see her fiance? That happened. And my fiance did actually suspect that something was up with my Study Buddy from Arabic class. He went so far as to track down my roommate at her work and ask her point-blank about my relationship with him. For the record: there was nothing up, ever.

To read “Because You’re Engaged” along with a dozen or so other short stories, pre-order your copy of Unspoken Words today. It will be released in paperback and as an ebook on October 26.

 

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We Have More Than 8 Fairy Tales

-Or-

How To Not Be Derivative

I grew up reading the collected works of Andrew Lang, along with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum and all the other classic tellers of modern fairy tales. I love fairy tales, and I always thought of myself as a person who truly loved fairy tales.

That changed this year.

When Immortal Works took me on as part of their acquisitions team, for the first time I got a really good look at what other people write when they think they are writing a modern fairy tale. Invariably they choose one of the following to rewrite:

  • Cinderella
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Snow White
  • The Little Mermaid
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Rapunzel
  • Sleeping Beauty again.
  • Also Cinderella

I’ve seen queries for gender-switched retellings, descendants of the main characters, stories about the villains, retellings where the main character is a huntress, etc etc. All based on the very small pantheon of Disney Princesses.

And it’s extremely common, too, for me to see queries about fairy tale characters with the Disney names. While Belle is not a copyrighted name, when I see that you’re writing a Beauty and the Beast treatment with a character named Belle, it sends up a red flag to me that your understanding of the original source material is shallow. I know ahead of time not to expect anything fresh or new and as I delve into your writing sample I am usually right. Don’t try to pitch a book about Maleficent, or reference Rapunzel’s magic hair. These things are unique to the Disney films. Including them as integral parts of your story tells me that your knowledge of fairy tales is limited to what is available at the Disney store.

I don’t like fairy tales any more, not if this is what “Fairy Tale” has come to mean: cheap and glitzy high-fructose corn syrup.

Here’s the truth: Western Civilization gave birth to more than eight fairy tales. Read a little deeper into the lore and you’ll find everything that modern audiences love about fairy tales: heroines that save the day with their bravery and wit; fantastical creatures that rival JK Rowling in creativity; mystery and adventure and humor. We have Kupti and Imani, the Nettle Spinner, To Your Good Health, Why The Sea is Salt, and so many more. (I even gave you the links, so now you don’t have an excuse not to read them.) Why we insist on fifty-four renditions of Cinderella, arguably one of the most boring fairy tales, is beyond me.

Now, there are some really excellent retellings out there. I adore retellings when they are done well. Among my favorites are Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (the book, not the movie), Alex Finn’s Mirrored, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, and Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment.

What can you do to write a unique fairy tell retelling that’s fresh and not hopelessly derivative? I put together a little list for you.

  • Stay away from anything Disney. If the Walt Disney company has made a movie of it, choose a different fairy tale. There are literally hundreds to choose from. Literally. And they’re all in the public domain.
  • If you must use a story that has been made into a Disney movie, stay away from the Disney names. Ariel, Belle, Aurora, Jasmine, and Malificent are no-nos.
  • Return to the original source material. Cinderella has been told and retold thousands of times across history. Look to Yeh-Shen, Rhodapis, and other ancient versions for inspiration.
  • Read widely. Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories, and also all those so-called classics you were supposed to read in high school but didn’t like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Night, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Illiad are good jumping-off points.

I wrote this rant not because I want to shame people who write endless Cinderella retellings, but because there is more in heaven and earth and in literature than is dreamt of in your philosophy. The scope and breadth of fairy tale literature is rich and full and there are too many writers who don’t take advantage of it. These are the stories I want – write your next novel about The Story of Little King Loc or the Colony of Cats or the Yellow Dwarf. Leave Cinderella alone. She’s already done her job.

Background Night Noises

My favorite toy when I was four was one of those brown fisher-price cassette players. I played my cassette tapes on it non-stop – always stories, very rarely music. I remember my collection of story tapes being quite extensive. My mom says I used to carry the tape player around with me after the fashion of a 1980s mp3 forerunner, and that she could always tell which part of the house I was in based on where she could hear “Cinderella” playing, like a bell on a cat.

I had to have a story playing as I went to sleep, but again, it could not be music. I can’t remember at what point that tape player bit the dust, but I am sure it must have been a tragic event.

When my family moved to Texas when I was ten, my parents gave me one of their old so-called boom boxes, and I used it primarily for playing Star Wars audio books as I drifted off to sleep.

When I wasn’t listening to the dulcet tones of Anthony Heald’s performance of The Courtship of Princess Leia, I contented myself with cicadas and tree frogs. In Mina Saud, Kuwait we had the ocean and the wind. During my study abroad in Alexandria, Egypt, I lived in an apartment right on the ocean front and could listen to the ocean and wind there, as well. As a bonus we also had people yelling in the street. “Aish al-yom! Aish al-yom! Ya Hassan! Feen il-mouz!?*” Even the yelling would occur late at night, because apparently most Egyptians are night-owls.

I used to think I required background noise to go to sleep. But that was before we had a particularly awful neighbor. The owner of the townhome a few doors down from us purchased a hot tub, and loved to host parties in it, on school nights, at what I would consider ungodly hours. Try as we might, we could not get used to that. We tried asking nicely for them to keep it down, we tried getting the HOA involved. When that didn’t work, we appealed to the police. Our neighbor once blew up at us that we were “harrassing” him because in the five years he had owned the house the police had been called on him sixteen times (note: not all sixteen of those calls came from us). We were unable to sleep with the windows open unless we wanted to be awakened by the sweet sounds of drunken retching. “Aish al-yom” was but a gentle lullaby compared to that.

And then, blessedly, that neighbor sold his house and it was purchased by a very pleasant young married couple who enjoy classical music and sewing. For the first time in five years, we can sleep with our windows open. Aside from the occasional train horn and car driving by, our neighborhood is blissfully silent.

Maybe a little too silent?

I guess it’s a good thing I have an mp3 player, still, with Harry Potter audiobooks on it.

*Translation: “Daily Bread! Daily Bread! Hey, Hassan! Where are the bananas!?”

Karate and Writing

Karate really does do all the things they say it does: the self-confidence, the health benefits, the works.

I mention it because only this week did I make an interesting connection between Karate and my writing. In November of 2014, I participated in Nanowrimo and completed my goal. The very next day, I got an invitation from TheSurvivalMom.com to be a contributing author. And that led indirectly to the invitation to speak at the League of Utah Writers conference in Fall 2016, which led indirectly to my joining the team over at Fiction Vortex. And last week (May 2017) I started work as an Acquisitions Editor with Immortal Works.

Maybe it’s not flashy or exciting, but that’s a lot of success, at least by my own definition of success. I am not making any meaningful money, but I get to write about things that interest me and people take me seriously and can tell people I am “in publishing.”

I’ve wanted to get to this point for ages, ever since my senior year of college when it dawned on me that I hated translating Arabic newspapers, but obviously it didn’t happen right after college. I read somewhere that sometimes people are afraid to try for their dreams because they don’t think they’re worthy. That’s something that I really struggled with in the past to a huge degree. I’ve always been an underachiever, ever since I was a little kid. And then when I got rejected by the CIA in Oct 2005 I felt really depressed for a while because obviously I wasn’t “good enough.” Ever after publishing my first short story in 2011, I was beset by imposter syndrome.

So what changed? Why is all this happening now and not ten years ago? What happened in my life in 2014? I am sure it was the Karate. I started in 2008, and in March 2014 I took my black belt test.

It was a grueling time – the style I subscribe to won’t give a black belt to just anybody, so you really have to earn it. The Powers That Be do this by making sure you are completely exhausted before they even look at your material. It usually takes 4-6 hours and you’re not allowed bathroom or water breaks. The black belt test wasn’t just the test, it was also the several months of extreme training leading up to the test. It was all worth it, though. When they gave me that black belt, I got all choked up and teary eyed.

Once you’ve survived a black belt test, everything else is a cakewalk. Natural Childbirth? Easy. Five children? No problem. Supporting my husband to quit his job and live on savings for two years so he could get his degree? Not even a big deal. Being a real author? Can do. I even thought for a while about running for public office. When I realized how much I would hate being in public office I put this idea behind me, but still.

Post-black belt, I started thinking of myself as a real writer with something meaningful to contribute. I started sending out stories – lots of them – for publication. I got a lot of rejection letters, and sometimes I did feel sad about it, but I didn’t let rejection stop me. I did “morning pages” as defined by Julia Cameron in her book “The Right To Write.”

I suppose if you really wanted to find a moral to the story, you could; probably something along the lines of “start taking Karate!” or even “if you don’t stop trying, eventually you’ll succeed.”

A Bacon Story

This last year for Christmas my husband received a shirt that sports the text, “That is too much Bacon, said no one ever.” And indeed, there is something about bacon that has proven itself irresistable to the American palate. I’m sure someone somewhere has published scientific research on the subject, analyzing the perfect interplay of salty, sweet, and umami flavors that give bacon its umph.

Not everyone in the world likes bacon, or even eats it. Some Middle Eastern countries, for example have banned the product entirely, as the purchase and consumption of pig products violates the Muslim dietary code.

How do I know this? Well, besides holding a college degree in Middle Eastern Studies (which these days I mostly use to get into pointless arguments over Facebook) I also happen to have lived in several Middle Eastern countries over the course of my life. My family moved to Kuwait in August 1999 when I was one month away from my sixteenth birthday (which is a story in and of itself, let me tell you!)

So here’s our funny bacon story. Fast forward to June 2000. My family was back in the states after spending the last year in Kuwait, where as I mentioned before bacon is actually illegal.* My dad’s employer put us up in an extremely posh hotel for several days. The first thing we did after waking up from a night of jet-lag-induced sleep deprivation is stagger downstairs to the luxurious breakfast buffet.

We’re humble Americans with simple tastes. It’s no surprise that after living for 10 months in a bacon-deprived society we made a beeline for the giant platter of bacon right in the middle of the buffet table.

“Ohh, Bacon!” we cried as we each took four or five pieces. (Because, you know, we didn’t want to be greedy.) We took our plates back to the table where we devoured it with all the delight of a relapsed alcoholic at an open bar. We smacked our lips and licked our fingers. When we had finished, we each returned to the giant platter of bacon and took four or five more pieces. And then four or five more, until we could see the bread at the bottom of the platter that had been used to absorb the excess bacon fat.

Did I mention that there are five of us? Only two other people occupied the dining room at the time. It was with some embarrassment that we realized our family had been entirely responsible for consuming the entire platter of bacon!  I’m sure that establishment lost money on us.

Other things illegal in Kuwait: liquid extract of vanilla (because it is alcoholic), holding hands with the opposite sex in public (urban legends abound of married couples getting busted), American-made skittles (the confectioner’s glaze is pork-gelatin; Austrailian-made skittles are ok, though.)

 

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On Corned Beef and Cabbage

A version of this post first appeared on my other blog in March 2013. It has been updated and edited for grammar and clarity for your convenience.

Ah, another St. Patrick’s day is upon us. I am not really into the lesser holidays, of which St. Patrick’s day is one. I know some of my cousins and friends go all-out and decorate their whole house with green and wear green from head to toe. I’m just not that way. I did wear a green shirt to church when March 17 fell on a Sunday a few years ago, but after seeing pretty much the entire congregation dressed in green, I wished I had worn my stripey pink shirt instead. Because that’s how I roll.

As my social media feeds fill with excitement and advertisements for traditional Irish food, my memory always goes back to my first true encounter with corned beef and cabbage. I was 19, in college, and it was not a positive experience. I’ll tell you all about it.

My significant other at the time was obsessed with Celtic culture and the British Isles. He hosted a huge St. Paddy’s day bash at his apartment and since I had been cast in the role of girlfriend, I of course attended. We watched The Secret of Roan Inish, which is a pretty decent film and drank Irish cream-flavored hot chocolate.

He made a HUGE mess of corned beef and cabbage and dished up a pretty significant helping for me. I would like to add here he did not ask if I wanted a significant portion. The provisions had been cooked in a crock pot, yet this somehow had a deleterious effect on both the corned beef and the cabbage. The beef came out dry and proved difficult to cut into pieces with a knife, much less chew. The time spent in the crock pot had definitely taken a toll on the cabbage, which had taken on the color and texture of boogers. I took two bites and decided I had better not eat any more if I wanted to keep what had been swallowed from coming back up.

Unfortunately, as will often happen in relationships when you’re young and inexperienced, I was too shy and embarrassed to actually tell him how much I loathed the food. I put the plate on the kitchen counter as quietly and surreptitiously as I could, and then pretended that I had no idea to whom the plate belonged.

“Somebody didn’t eat their corned beef and cabbage!” He exclaimed with great indignation once the other party guests had left.

“Hmm. That’s weird,” came my innocent reply. “I wonder who that was?” If ever he reads this blog, let him now know: that was me. And that is why I will probably serve tacos for dinner this year.

I Really Like Fairy Tales

Yes, it’s true. I do. I am a grown woman with a Bachelor’s degree and five kids and I am a huge sucker for fairy tales. I like to write about them a lot. (Like, really a lot) So since this is my brand new blog, I will start with one of my favorite things.

I’m also kind of a fairy tale hipster. I don’t stop at the “canon”that only includes the “classics” like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. The global corpus of fairy tales is massive. It’s huge. And to tell the truth, there are a ton out there that are way more interesting than boring old Cinderella.

Ever heard of The Nettle Spinner? Kupti and Imani? The Story of Little King Loc? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

For Christmas, because my mom knows me pretty well, she got me a volume of Chinese fairy tales and a volume of Indian ones. A couple years ago she gave me some Syrian folktales, and those books were pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me.

Quite a number are extremely unsuitable for children by the standards of our modern sensibilities. Early versions of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel will never find their way into a book for twinkle-eyed kindergarteners. This tells me that fairy tales can be for grown-ups, too. For Christmas, because my mom knows me pretty well, she got me a volume of Chinese fairy tales and a volume of Indian ones. A couple years ago she gave me some Syrian folktales, and those books were pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me. And I’m in my early 30s.

What is your favorite fairy tale and why? Do you know any obscure ones that you wish they’d make into movies instead of endless iterations of Cinderella?

 

Transitions in Blogging

I started a blog over on blogger in January 2008, mostly as a way to show off my spinning and knitting projects. Then it became my personal soap box. But the thing is, I don’t need or want a soap box any more. I need (drumroll please) an Author Page, because over the course of 9 years I’ve actually started to get some publishing credits to my name. And it’s time.